Life is a classroom

Gail Vaz-Oxlade says money lessons should be taught by parents, not teachers.



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I am the lone voice against putting money lessons in the classroom. It seems to me that every time we have life lessons parents should be teaching and that leave some of us out of our depth, we try to shove those lessons onto the shoulders of teachers. We’ve done such a crappy job of teaching our children about sex that it’s fallen to the school system to impart lessons that are best discussed at home. And now we want to do the same thing with money.

Here’s the thing: to teach children about money, you have to give them some. Teachers can’t give money to kids; only parents can do that. I know, I know, they could learn “lessons” about money. But they won’t stick. Kids are concrete learners and the best way for them to learn is to do. Besides, what makes parents think teachers, as a group, are any more adept with money?

“But Gail, they’ll be following professionally designed curriculum.”  Designed by whom and with what messages? As parents we’ve been exposed to b’zillions of pieces of information about why we need to save. As a population, we’ve learned very little. Why do you think it’ll be any different for kids in classrooms?

Parents need to step up and do this job. If it means we must step out of our comfort zones to figure out what to teach and how, that’s our job as parents. Unless, of course, you want a teacher being in charge of how your kids end up thinking about money.

For the love of bunnies, don’t keep trying to off load responsibility for one of your children’s most important lessons onto someone else. If you’re not willing to do it, resign yourself to raising what I call “money morons” and be done with it.

If you’re determined to help your children find a better path with money, you can start as young as age 3.

Kids won’t absorb every lesson right away, but if you talk about these things as you go about your day, you’ll end up with a kid that’s smarter about money than if you don’t. From helping kids to identify coins, to pointing out that not everything worthwhile requires money (a play date is free), there are teaching moments everywhere.

Don’t forget to impart these crucial lessons:

Money is a medium of exchange. Let your child pay for things in the dollar store, in the convenience store, at the toy store. The lesson is that money is a finite resource: when you spend it, it’s gone. (This is a lesson some parents could do with too.)

You work to earn money. No, bank machines don’t just spit cash at you, though children might come to believe that if you never talk about how people earn money. On your next walkabout, talk about all the jobs people have to earn money: bus driver, police officer, lawn-cutter, store keeper, dog walker…

You may have to wait to buy something you want. Here’s a lesson most folks could do well to take a refresher course on. Just like kid has to wait in a line, wait for her turn, wait for his birthday, so too do people have to wait to buy things. You can only buy what you have the money to pay for. Patience is part of the equation. So is anticipation.

Needs must. Wants, not so much. This is where parental honesty will be put to the test. Would you tell your mini-me that what you’re buying is a want, not a need? You should emphasize that needs come first by demonstrating through your own behaviour what responsible spending looks like.

If you have been unable to internalize these lessons yourself, maybe now you will do it for the love of your children.

8 comments on “Life is a classroom

  1. When I was a kid I was naturally frugal,but the next step of what to do with my savings,"make money while I sleep"came from reading publications such as the "wealthy barber" and later reading the financial post and your articles.To put that info. into the school agenda would be a use of my tax money better spent.My Dad passed on info."its not what you make its what you spend" ,I added to that and passed my knowledge to my son,showed him everthing I learned and made sure he knew I was there to discuss any decision in the area of Finance.


  2. The point is that you're banking on parents already having good habits to teach, and as you know (and expressed in this post) that's not always the case! I think money management should be part of the school curriculum, AND taught at home (just in Mom & Dad happen to be Money Morons, which A LOT of us are!).


  3. Unfortunately, many parents are not equipped to teach good money management lessons, including my own. I learned as an adult, but wonder if I would have made fewer mistakes if I had been exposed to sound financial ideas while in school…I think it would be a great idea to expose kids to good concepts in school, to reinforce what I teach at home.


  4. Here's two tips to help your debt ridden student coming out of university.I've been claiming the "education amount transferred from a child" and its been coming in at just over a 1,000.00 of tax refund ,I've been putting that aside and will present it to him when he is faced with the cost of monthly loan paybacks.The other is to apply for the "repayment assistance plan " before you make your first OSAP payment,it allows your payment to go 100% to principle until you reach a graduated level of income,the govt. covers the interest until then.


  5. As the Executive Director of Money School Canada I teach a financial literacy workshop in GTA classrooms and many teachers tell me that the subject matter scares them to death. Personal finance is a broad topic and even those with years of experience with it don't know it all. Time and time again teachers will jump in during a lesson with comments on the financial literacy material being presented that are – to be frank – incorrect. To me the biggest hurdle that needs to be jumped to grow a financially literate generation is to put an end to the misinformation imparted by supposed ‘experts’. I have found that students are really interested in learning about money. They ask a diverse array of questions and to effectively teach financial literacy lessons both teachers and parents need to be prepared to answer – consistently and accurately. Educators are being trained however until there is wholesale change in the financial knowledge levels of parents/ teachers perhaps it's worthwhile to consider other options.


    • Hi Tricia,
      "To me the biggest hurdle that needs to be jumped to grow a financially literate generation is to put an end to the misinformation imparted by supposed "experts"…
      While I see your point, and agree, I'm not sure we would get the best ROI attacking this hurdle as we would, say, investing more in workshops like yours, helping our kids more easily tell a good deal from a bad deal… Misinformation, incorrect claims, bended truths – there's another term for this, it's called "marketing". It could even be a distant and possibly illegitimate cousin of Colbert's "truthiness". No matter the amount of resources we put to weeding out misinformation, it's there, whether innocently or deceptively. Don't get me wrong – we should definitely have enforcement. However, I just don't believe it will offer best ROI or get us (and our kids) closer to the types of outcomes we all want (good personal finance situation with capacity to absorb and rebound from "shocks").
      Instead, I think better to invest resources in more learning to help kids wade through all the crap and more easily tell a good deal from a bad. To be more concrete, 70% preventative and 30% reactive (enforcement) of available resources.


  6. One of the big things that has been brought to the attention of investors ,the cost of the MER that mutual funds are charging,2.5% and the fund could be losing money.I have never put my RSP into the stock market and bought stocks like Banks and Pipelines that are paying dividends,you can get in and out for 4.95.From 11% to 4 ,its been a good compound interest ,25 years that were guranteed,inflation is what, 1.4%Just another thing to pass onto the kids.


  7. My son is now into his 1st year of a second undergraduate deploma,his 5th year,the OSAP issued him is now considered an independent student loan ,no parents income taken into account,which means his loan amount issued plus the grant for being in a low income position is double his tuition.Now his loan payback per year is capped at 7,300.00 so half the loan and all his grants are non repayable amounts.
    Now when he completes his education if his job does not net him a salary of a suitable amount,eg.less than $20,000. means 0 payment required,and its graduated from there,plus when payments begin it continues to be an interest free loan and all payments go to principal to a maximum of 20% of income,if there is any loan left after 15 years the remaning amount is forgiven.The level of income where they begin to charge interest is graduated and its tax deductible.
    I'l be assisting him in his monthly payments until his salary improves,but overall a good deal in my opinion.The Resp got used up in the first 4 years which just increases the non repayable amount this year.Now you have to apply every 6 months for the "Repayment Assisstance Plan" after he graduates but its obviously worth it.


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